When I was in high school, I applied for a part-time job at an ice cream shop in my small South Carolina hometown. The manager of the shop was well versed in the subtleties of hiring teenagers. "We pay minimum wage and you supply your own uniforms," he said, "but of course you can have as much ice cream as you want."
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I was not without other prospects. And it wasn't much of a job -- I would be responsible for making sundaes, mopping floors, and cleaning the ice cream machines after closing. But unlimited access to ice cream treats was a compelling factor. I took the job.
You can guess the rest. For the first week or two I scarfed down a banana split and a milkshake before my shift, gobbled a sundae during my break, and walked out the door with a couple of cones. I considered, as seriously as one does at 15, a career in the ice cream business.
But my enthusiasm for free ice cream waned rapidly. It wasn't long before I lost my taste for it entirely and eschewed even the occasional cone. I'd had too much of a good thing.
I've noticed a similar dynamic at work within myself and the other members of the Computer Language editorial staff. We joined the magazine with incredible enthusiasm, a little smug about our sudden unrestricted access to the latest and greatest software development tools. (Yes, we lorded it over buddies who were still toiling away in the code mines with tools they had to pay for. And yes, now we feel guilty about it.)
They didn't make hard disks big enough to store all the libraries and utilities we simply had to have online. We switched compilers more often than underwear, porting little programs from environment to environment without sense or caution. We analyzed the dynamics of our bank accounts with CASE tools and implemented checkbook balancers with glitzy new front ends every couple of days.
But it seems development tools are like ice cream. After a while the novelty wears off and you stick to your favorite flavors. Then even those lose their luster, and before you know it, breaking the shrink-wrap is just too much trouble.
So over time we've all become a little blasé about the unsolicited compilers, tools, and libraries that show up in each day's load of express mail. We're not cynical, exactly... it's just that we can no longer work up the energy to get enthused about yet another new crop of seven-day wonders. The glut has hardened us, reduced our taste for tools. We've had too much of a good thing.
Rising Above the Glut
Don't mistake me. We still think software development tools are exciting and important. We understand the central role good tools play in the software developer's life. That's why we consistently devote 10 times as many pages as any other magazine to reviews of development tools.
But it takes a pretty significant product to catch our eye these days, to rise above the glut and demand our attention. Among the thousands of press releases and hundreds of packages we receive in a year, only a handful stand out as noteworthy, as particularly important.
We were talking about this in a staff meeting a few weeks ago, and we were surprised at how quickly we reached consensus about which of 1990's new products were stand-outs, significant because of the problem they solved or their efficacy in effecting a solution. "If you could have any set of compilers, libraries, and tools on a hard disk with limited space," we asked each other, "which would they be?"
Someone grabbed a pen and a pad and we began making a list. We limited the list to products or updates that had begun shipping in 1990, products that two or more of us had used. It was, admittedly, a personal and idiosyncratic way of building a list of excellent development tools (though along the way we did ask our columnists and contributing editors to make their own nominations). But we're in a uniquely privileged position to try all the industry's best tools, and among us we've enough professional programming experience to make defensible calls about which tools contribute most to programmer productivity.
From the meeting came a complete list, and from the list, an idea. We would honor the products that had most impressed us with an award, the Computer Language 1990 Productivity Award. To our surprise, our publisher didn't shoot down the idea. So plans progressed and culminated in an award ceremony at Software Development '91, where we recognized these superior products. We think of it as a service to readers. Hey -- you can't afford to miss these products.
A Jolt to the Industry
Along the way, we realized that a select few of the products we'd picked were extraordinarily important, that they would have significant impact on the software development community for years to come. We thought these products should receive special awards in recognition of the fundamental impact they'd had on making programmers more productive.
We needed a special symbol to communicate the impact of these products. And it wasn't too long before someone mentioned Jolt Cola.
Jolt is the Gatorade of programming, the canonical beverage of all-night hack attacks. It's associated, in our minds, with all that's best about programming: intense, concentrated effort illuminated by flashes of insight. Even Jolt's lightning-bolt logo was appropriate for the tone of the award.
So we called Jolt president C.J. Rapp and told him about the special products we'd identified and how they, like Jolt Cola, contributed to programmer productivity. And to our surprise, he agreed to cosponsor an award for these top products of the year.
The result is the Jolt Product Excellence Award in recognition of products that give our industry a jolt.